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Fire Burns Through Mining Outpost

August 16, 2004|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

A fierce wildfire was still raging Sunday in an old gold mining town in mountainous Shasta County after destroying 20 homes Saturday, fire officials said.

No one has been injured in the fire in French Gulch. Flames consumed a century-old lodge hall owned by the Oddfellows fraternal group and another commercial building. But firefighters were able to save the town's church, elementary school, post office, fire hall, hotel and the local bar.

The cause of the so-called French incident was still under investigation, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

French Gulch, a frontier town of about 400 people that shifted from mining to logging in the 1940s, is about 19 miles west of Redding.

The fire broke out about 2:30 p.m. Saturday and the forestry department evacuated about 75 families. Fed by erratic winds, the fire had burned 7,663 acres of manzanita, brush and pine by Sunday. It was only 10% contained Sunday afternoon, and 1,155 firefighters with bulldozers, air tankers and helicopters were struggling to tame the blaze as it headed northwest, fire officials said.

"There are a lot of what we consider 'chimneys,' " said Kevin Colburn, a forestry department fire information officer. "That's an area down steep, narrow canyons. It burns quicker with the winds and dense vegetation."

Firefighters have to move slowly because of rattlesnakes and old silver and gold mine shafts, he said. Brush has grown up around the ventilation tunnels, making the holes hard to see, Colburn said.

On Sunday, forestry department officials said they feared the fire would get worse. "The inversion layer has started to lift, which is increasing the canyon winds, which means more fire and smoke," said Roy Del Carlo, a forestry department information officer.

A few residents gathered Sunday afternoon at E. Franck and Co. bar on Main Street, filling each other in about the fire's progress. "I could see it coming into town, burning 100 yards every two minutes," said Bruce Nyberg, who lives six miles from the center of town.

Nyberg said he left his home as the flames approached, but managed to return on logging roads. His house survived. Many did not. "It's pretty catastrophic," he said.

The bar's owner, John Felsher, 67, said he was glad that firefighters managed to save the business that his wife's family has run for 150 years and the barn behind it. "But we lost half of [the] town," he said.

In particular, Felsher was saddened by the loss of the two-story Oddfellows Hall. "There were a lot of antiques and pictures and records," he said.

Felsher said he was serving drinks to about 15 customers when it started to get hot Saturday. He left and was allowed to return about midnight to get medicine for his 90-year-old mother-in-law. Felsher stayed in town and opened the bar Sunday. "The beer's not as cold as it was," he said. "We have no power and no water."

A nearby fire, which destroyed 80 homes and scorched 10,484 acres south of Shasta Lake, was 95% contained Sunday. The fire began Wednesday when a lawnmower struck a rock in dry grass near Jones Valley, officials said.

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